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Review: Late Night

June 14, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) is an award-winning late night talk show host, whose comedy and interview show Tonight With Katherine Newbury was once a huge ratings draw for her network. But she is quickly losing her place as queen of late night hosts, with her all white and all male writing staff playing things safe and keeping her material from getting too edgy.

With the threat of being replaced hanging over her head, the notoriously ruthless Katherine reluctantly makes the decision to diversify by hiring the show’s first female writer. Enter Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), a woman of colour and aspiring standup comic who leaves her job at a chemical plant to work on the show.

Molly’s presence and biting insight adds a much needed dash of relevance to Katherine’s show, but she gets pushback from other members of the writing staff, who view her simply as a “diversity hire” and feel threatened by her. This is the premise behind Late Night, a new workplace comedy with shades of The Devil Wears Prada that premiered at Sundance and sold to Amazon for $15 million, in the biggest acquisition of this year’s festival.

Kaling not only brings spirited energy to her role, but she also provides the film with its screenplay, which has been brought to the screen by the Vancouver-born director Nisha Ganatra. The two of them met and first collaborated together when Ganatra directed an episode of The Mindy Project. The fact that there are such strong female voices behind the scenes of Late Night really helps the film offer an accurate and appropriately satirical depiction of the struggles faced by women in the entertainment industry, especially as studios and networks struggle to diversify and adapt to a modern environment that demands they do so.

The film explores issues of racism and sexism in the workplace, even in environments where women are largely calling the shots, and it does so in a really witty and clever way. Katherine herself is a complex and multilayered character, a powerful woman who has reached the top but seems threatened by other women in her industry, and is reluctant to prop them up lest they overtake her. Thompson commands the screen and really sinks her teeth into the role, and the veteran actress also gets to demonstrate her impeccable comic timing, delivering many of her lines with a dry, sarcastic tone.

Meanwhile, Molly is fully aware that the entertainment world isn’t really ready to accept a minority woman like her, and that tokenism played a huge role in terms of her getting hired. So she enters into every situation with a smile on her face and a positive attitude, carefully observing each meeting and writing session like a hawk, waiting for the moments when she can jump in and prove herself with a killer joke or fresh insight. Katherine and Molly are both presented as equally headstrong and willing to stand up for themselves, but their approaches to the world are different, and that’s what makes their interactions together so interesting and entertaining to watch.

The film is rounded out by a strong supporting cast that also includes John Lithgow as Katherine’s husband, and Ike Barinholtz as an obnoxious fratboy comic who is an up-and-comer in the standup world and views himself as a natural successor to Katherine, much to her dismay. A big part of what makes Late Night so appealing is watching the actors play off each other, as they trade barbs and also moments of understanding. The film ultimately works thanks to Thompson’s fierce portrayal of a queen bee talk show host, Kaling’s hugely likeable performance as her unlikely protégé, and a screenplay that playfully tackles a variety of hot button issues.

Late Night is now playing in select theatres across Canada.

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